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Herbert Nieburgs, 99, a force for collaboration on cancer

Dr. Herbert Nieburgs invented a high-magnification microscope for cancer research.

Dr. Herbert Nieburgs invented a high-magnification microscope for cancer research.

In the years before and during World War II, Dr. Herbert Nieburgs lived in Latvia, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Italy, and England, becoming multilingual before he moved to the United States and became a cancer researcher.

“He was a man of the world,” said Dr. Ted Valli, a friend and colleague who worked on the journal now known as Cancer Epidemiology, which Dr. Nieburgs founded. “And he really understood the advantage of being an American.”

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Respected as a pathologist and cytologist, Dr. Nieburgs was “a brilliant man with a great sense of humor” who was “far more inventive than everybody else around him,” said Valli, a veterinarian who now works for VDx Veterinary Pathology Services in Davis, Calif.

Dr. Nieburgs, who invented a high-magnification microscope for research, died of chronic heart failure June 8 in Millbury Health Care Center in Millbury. He was 99 and had lived in Worcester.

Dr. Nieburgs was born in Latvia, and was 5 when his Jewish family fled to Germany after the Russian Revolution.

His family moved to Czechoslovakia in the 1920s and he graduated from medical school in Italy. Dr. Nieburgs told his family about being in Vienna during Kristallnacht, the violent anti-Jewish pogromsof 1938, and later escaping to England, where he treated patients in London during the Blitz bombings. Along the way, he became fluent in German, Italian, Russian, Latvian, and English.

In 1946, he moved to Atlanta to study pathology at the Medical College of Georgia, and eight years later joined the pathology department at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, where he founded and directed a cell pathology laboratory.

After 30 years in New York, he moved to Worcester to join the staff at University of Massachusetts Medical School, where he was a senior affiliate into his 90s.

In 2011, he spoke at an American Association for Cancer Research meeting in Washington, where he “stood for hours answering questions from a crowd of scientists,” his son-in-law William Munger of Stow, a medical researcher, wrote in a tribute.

Dr. Nieburgs founded the International Society for Preventive Oncology, as well as the group’s journal, then called Cancer Detection and Prevention, in the 1970s. He served as the journal’s editor for 32 years, until he was 95.

During those years, Valli said, Dr. Nieburgs organized dozens of international meetings of cancer specialists, which helped advance global collaboration.

“We went all over the world together: Nice, London, Bologna,” Valli said. “He really understood the advantage of having these huge meetings where everyone would give their opinions. He was a soft-spoken man, but he was very determined.”

Valli described Dr. Nieburgs as “ahead of his time,” especially in the field of cell magnification.

In his research, Dr. Nieburgs showed that before clinical symptoms of cancer appear, cells elsewhere in a patient’s body display what he termed malignancy associated changes, or MAC. In addition to the high-magnification microscope, his son-in-law said, Dr. Nieburgs designed a cell-staining process and a system that computed pathology diagnoses.

In the early days of chemotherapy and radiation, Dr. Nieburgs favored treating cancer with only surgery. That was the case when his daughter Doriane of Seattle, was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 20s.

“He went with me to all my appointments,” she said. “When his colleagues recommended chemo and radiation, he said, ‘No, just surgery.’ And he was right.”

She said she has been cancer-free for about 30 years, and recalled visiting her father in the laboratory.

“One thing I learned from him early on was his devotion to and his passion for his career,” she said. “He showed us that in order to be happy you have to have passion for your work, to love what you do.”

His other daughter, Andra Nieburgs-Munger of Stow, said Dr. Nieburgs did not allow resistance to his research findings to deter him, and said he told his children, “ ‘Why do you care what other people think? You should only care about what you think.’ ”

She added that he encouraged his children to be “leaders, not sheep who only followed others.”

While Dr. Nieburgs “would do anything possible to keep a person alive,” she said, he was “against the indiscriminate use of medicine. His whole focus was always on early detection and prevention.”

The son of a pharmaceutical manufacturer, Herbert Eguda Nieburgs was born in Riga, Latvia. His family first settled in Berlin after leaving Latvia, and moved to Czechoslovakia when Dr. Nieburgs was 12.

He graduated from medical school in Bologna, Italy. He reunited with his parents, who had fled Czechoslovakia after the German invasion, and they relocated to southern France. In 1938, Dr. Nieburgs obtained a visa to move to London, and tried without success to help his parents get out of Europe, his family said. They were sent to Auschwitz, where they died in 1942.

For the rest of his life, Dr. Nieburgs was haunted by the death of his parents, his son-in-law wrote, and kept “a postcard sent by his father from the train that assured Dr. Nieburgs that they were only going to ‘work camps’ and would be fine.”

In 1978, Dr. Nieburgs married Suzanne Kay of Worcester, whom he had met on a bus in Europe. His first three marriages ended in divorce.

During his career, Dr. Nieburgs wrote and edited several books and numerous articles about cancer detection and prevention.

When Dr. Nieburgs retired from working on Cancer Detection and Prevention, Valli wrote in a tribute that Dr. Nieburgs had turned the journal into “a major voice in mechanisms of cancer development as well as its many causes and cofactorial aspects of detection and prevention.”

Dr. Nieburgs read extensively about World War II and also enjoyed painting, photography, and skiing, and flying light planes, his family said. He loved to travel, and to spend time at a vacation home in Hancock.

In addition to his wife, two daughters, and son-in-law, Dr. Nieburgs leaves a son, Randolph of Visalia, Calif.; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

The family plans to hold a private service this summer.

Kathleen McKenna can be reached at kmck66@comcast.net.

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